Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Interviewing Your Way to the Best Listing Agent

A couple in their 40s -- an ophthalmologist married to a pediatrician -- were so preoccupied with their careers that they scarcely noticed how their four kids had outgrown the family's compact bungalow. It was only after a family member prodded them to seek larger quarters that they decided to sell.

Once in gear, however, they took a businesslike approach to hiring the best available listing agent. To expedite their transition to the more spacious Tudor house they'd picked out, they wanted a skillful agent who knew their neighborhood well and would recommend the right asking price. The keys to finding this person? Create a short list and then interview multiple candidates.

Eric Tyson, a personal finance expert and co-author of "House Selling for Dummies," doesn't know the couple in this true story. But he applauds them for their thoughtful selection of a qualified agent who helped price and stage their property correctly. In the end, the pair's bungalow attracted multiple offers and sold above the asking price in just three days.

"It's all too common for sellers to take a trivial approach to hiring a listing agent. In many cases, people just make a random selection of agents -- picking someone a neighbor or co-worker happens to know. But selling success depends on due diligence," Tyson says.

Granted, some owners do well on their sale without a highly qualified agent -- particularly if they're lucky enough to enjoy a robust seller's market. But real estate specialists caution against overconfidence -- especially at a time when there are crosscurrents in the economy, as there are now.

Ron Phipps, a real estate broker and past president of the National Association of Realtors (www.realtor.org), says more sellers are gradually getting the message about the importance of careful agent selection.

Here are a few pointers for sellers:

-- Make sure you interview at least two to four candidates.

"When you talk to several people, you'll get different perspectives on your sale," Phipps says. "Several opinions on pricing can be especially helpful."

He says you should be wary of any agent who suggests you list your place for more than 10 percent above what others say is its fair market value.

"Find out how they arrived at that higher price," says Phipps, noting that occasionally some agents may suggest an above-market list price as a way to flatter you into hiring them. This practice is known as "buying the listing."

-- Focus on local knowledge.

Your cousin or that highly recommended friend-of-a-friend might be an excellent real estate agent. But should you consider hiring this person if their office is located a significant distance away from your place?

Absolutely not, says Tyson, who contends that a faraway agent is likely to be much less effective in marketing your property than one who knows your local turf well.

"Anyone who works more than a 15-minute drive from your place is probably a very poor bet. Geography matters a lot," he says.

It's especially wise to have an agent close by if you're trying to sell a property in a city setting -- such as a condo in a high-rise building. In such a case, the ideal agent is typically someone with proven experience selling units in your same building.

"Agents with an intimate knowledge of the floor plans and sales history of your complex can hit the pricing target right the first time. That spares you the agony of multiple pricing adjustments later," Tyson says.

Realtors call the area where they most often sell homes their "farm." As Tyson says, agents who say they farm your area should be able to demonstrate this with a list of transactions they've done there recently.

-- Request information about a candidate's awards and honors.

How can you identify agents who have achieved an unusual level of expertise? Phipps says one way to distinguish among agents is to ask if they've been elected to positions of leadership within their professional groups.

"This shows they have a reputation for collaborating with other real estate people," Phipps says. That's important, he says, because real estate is a cooperative profession, and a successful sale typically involves more than one agent.

-- Pick an agent with a proven deal-closing record.

During boom times, most sellers feel home free once they've obtained a ratified contract -- meaning their deal has been agreed upon by both sides of the transaction.

But in a transitional economic period like the current one, many sellers are understandably nervous that complications along the way to closing might jettison their deal. That's because qualifying for a mortgage is trickier than it was prior to the last real estate downturn a decade ago. Consequently, more home loan applications are declined than before.

"Selling has become much more complicated. So it's smart to find an agent with experience handling many different kinds of transactions. Look for their record of closing deals, not just taking listings," Phipps says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at ellenjamesmartin@gmail.com.)